I am almost lost

by Erin Stewart


The air is bloated. I look across the horizon from this tower and see flat country – northern France. The paddocks are endless and fertile and full of secret shrapnel. I glance down at soldiers’ graves. My great grand-uncle died around here, around a hundred years ago. I learned from musty war records that he was cold and sick and walked purposely into a rain of enemy bullets. His friends found a bit of his bag, but he was otherwise eviscerated, atoms scattered. He does not have a grave below. He must have felt so lost, so far away from home.

Behind me there’s a little map which orients the lookout. “Here you are”, “here is north”. It’s in English because it’s an Australian memorial. It’s disorienting to see the coat of arms – an emu and a kangaroo holding a shield – in northern France. But my eyes are fixed to the place where the sky and the ground meet. I feel a sickness, somewhere around my navel, wondering at what point my great grand-uncle knew he was never going to get back home on the other side of the world. I am struck with a fear which should not belong to someone accustomed to helicopters and global positioning systems. It should not belong to someone in fair health, who is not at war, who can scrounge to pay for a seat on a Qantas flight to Melbourne. But there it is. The little map points me north but I don’t know how to get home. I will never get home.

Everybody gets lost sometimes. That’s reassuring. But it still feels something like throwing up, or claustrophobia.

Our retinas are flat. We take in grainy, upside-down images of the world around us and our brain re-orients the picture, fills gaps, and adds the illusion of depth. What if faraway things are really just small things? What if the tall buildings I see around me are a patchwork quilt, fabric next to fabric? What if, instead of going up, and up, and up, the sky is our ceiling? What if landscape is a backdrop to our movie set? What if there is no world to get lost in?

When doctors ask me, “do you ever have any strange or unusual thoughts?” they are asking me about my propensity to conclude that the real world disappeared while I was asleep the night before and was then replaced with something almost-identical, but still somehow, detectably false. They are asking me about my previous conviction that the cityscape was just a polyester cotton blend I could pierce with a dressmaker’s pin. They’re asking about the time when I, an atheist, could point to where God was in the sky/ceiling and discern what he wanted from me.

There are clinical terms I can use to describe these thoughts. “Delusions”, “derealisations”. They’re attached to diagnoses. “Bipolar I, with psychotic features,” it says on my medical files. My extreme moods and energies, both high and low, launch me into a set of bizarre beliefs which disrupt my relationship with space, with reality. A couple of doctors think that bipolar’s rarer cousin, “schizoaffective disorder” might be a better label. A condensed explanation of schizoaffective disorder is that it also means the strange or unusual thoughts come when my mood seems relatively normal. I’m assured the difference doesn’t really matter because they’re treated the same anyway. Just as I walk the same road home regardless of whether the houses around me are solid, or whether they’re secretly a fragile curtain I could tear apart accidentally, just by pulling it back.

The taxonomies also don’t matter because they don’t stop the sense of floating away. And they can’t reassure me that this time I’m not really lost, because independently of the idiosyncrasies of psychosis, everybody feels lost sometimes. I don’t know how to trace what’s normal from what isn’t, so I commit myself to learning how to cope with being lost. A regular life event that is also a symptom. 

I remind myself of a comedy sketch where a man juggles three balls perfectly but there’s a look of abject terror on his face. He doesn’t understand how he’s doing it, even though he is doing it. I am on the London Underground on my way to interview a woman for an article I am writing. I am wearing a maroon blazer, which I think proves something. I am professional yet young, and maybe fun. But once I am out of the tunnels, I’m a juggler who doesn’t know how to juggle. A map tells me which side of Vauxhall station I am on and where I am facing and which street I need. I know this is enough information and yet it is not enough information. At first, I am frozen. Then, I try to make eye contact with the streams of commuters who walk towards me and then away but I cannot. They’re staring at their phones as though the maze of the world is no big deal, it doesn’t even require vague attention.

Then, I start to walk anyway, even though I don’t understand where I’m going. I happen upon an inner-city petting zoo. There are alpacas and horses and geese and chickens, and I wonder if I am in a dream or hallucination but I am not, the world really is that whimsical and I am twenty minutes late for the interview. When I do eventually unravel the strange ream of streets and get there, I apologise.

The interviewee looks at me and says, “Don’t worry about it. I feel for you. You know, London is hard to navigate if you don’t come here often.”

We take a bus to downtown Scottsdale, Arizona. Shop fronts shoot out a mist of water and it is strange but not unwelcome because it is so hot. I buy an Arizona snow globe for a friend while the two boys I’m with insist we take dinner at Hooters, which I do not want to do. So, I go back where the bus placed us down, although this time I am alone.

The bus grunts diesel and I look out the window. There are blocks and blocks of modest homes and dust, red dust, red choking dust. I don’t know what stop is closest to the hotel. Eventually, the monotonous landscape begins to look familiar, so I hit the “STOP” button. I’m a good walker. I’ll take the chance.

It is dry, there’s no water. After a few minutes of confused walking I start to imagine how my skeleton will look once my body eviscerates in the desert. I go to call a taxi and my phone battery is flat. I don’t know how to retrace my steps to the bus stop, or even if I took the correct bus. I keep my mouth open like a panting dog as I wander into a pizza shop and ask for directions to my hotel from the person behind the counter. “Never heard of it,” he says.

But just as I open the door to leave, a man in a white suit tells me to wait. “I’ll give you a ride there,” he says. And I look down. Which is more dangerous? Wandering lost in the desert, or accepting a ride from a stranger? “You’ll be walking a long time otherwise,” he adds. This is a good argument so I say yes and I attempt to mingle my caution with gratitude.

He directs me to his car, which is huge and smells of leather. He asks me where I’m from and I say “Australia”.

 “Ah, my wife’s British,” he says. “Like her, you’d be used to a car like this.” I look at the steering wheel. It’s a Rolls Royce. I had never seen such a car in all my life, much less been inside one. But I just smile and say, “yeah,” and he takes me to the hotel. I was lost but a stranger was kind and I didn’t die.

I ignore the fact that I’ve been groped, I assume accidentally, by Spiderman. I ignore the fact that everywhere there are screens and dancing letters and too-tall structures and too many people. I ignore it by concentrating on the man whispering into my ears. The story is in the air. It is pumped through my headphones.

It is a This American Life podcast segment which seems to start as an attempt to decry the hipster trend of cinnamon toast in San Francisco but ends up being a portrait of a lively, entrepreneurial woman, Giulietta Carrelli. She runs a café serving the foods that make her feel anchored to the world, and comfortable – cinnamon toast, grapefruit juice, and coconuts (it also serves coffee).

She has schizoaffective disorder. Sometimes her thoughts race so fast she can barely see. Sometimes she’d think a tree fell on top of her when it hadn’t. Sometimes she’d just get so inside herself that the whole world would dissolve.

And so, she wears the same outfit every day, a crop top and a headscarf. She is covered with tattoos. She has this uniform so that she is memorable to those who are regularly around her. She needs to be memorable so that when she loses her way, people will know her and know where she is going. When she asks people where she’s going, she’s memorable enough for them to know the answer and for her to get directions. She needs to be memorable because she can’t always remember her way.

It’s hard for me to keep walking in a straight line. It’s hard to know what straight is, despite the fact that I am in New York city, in the big chunk of Manhattan that’s made of predictable square blocks and north of any dangerous curves. Oh dear, I think. Oh dear. I have a rule for places in the world like Times Square: if you walk only two blocks away from a tourist trap, you can find quiet (and affordable slices of cheese pizza). Which direction though? How do I get in any direction that is out when the foot traffic is so dense? Oh dear. Oh dear.

When I get home I ask a psychiatrist if maybe one day I won’t be able to find my way in my daily spaces and I’ll have to cultivate external eccentricities to prime people for helping me. I admire Giulietta Carrelli’s industriousness so I decide that what I find difficult about the story isn’t the fact she gets lost sometimes (even though being lost feels like vomit and terror). Instead, it’s this notion of being purposefully conspicuous. I like to blend into spaces because it feels safer not to attract attention. Getting lost is a risk. It made me go into a stranger’s car once. The tension of relying on the lottery of kindness is a viscous current. It’s like thick blood. I create images in my head which purport to be estimations of the external world, but they don’t have steady directions or angles. They ooze. Once, in the context of a grey and unrelenting depression, I forgot how to get to a class I attended weekly. Was it this building or the one next to it? What floor was it on? What turns did I have to take? This isn’t a normal example of getting lost, is it? Sometimes I need help and sometimes help requires you to be conspicuous, otherwise you end up spending half an hour wandering corridors and checking rooms for familiar faces.

The psychiatrist positioned her spine close to her thighs so that she could look up at me and meet my downcast eyes. She doesn’t think these sorts of problems will get worse for me. I respond well to treatment, they’ve started keeping track of my cognitive function which at a baseline is pretty good anyway. I am only almost lost. I am still tethered by street names and cardinal directions and latitudes and longitudes. To feel the maps slipping away is disturbing but it’s also a way of knowing that I need to call out, ask for directions, hold on tight.

I walk out of the palace gates. I am tired and sweat and dirt congeal on my slippery skin. I keep raising my hand to flatten my hair backwards, an ineffectual attempt at cooling my furious, chattering head. I think I can walk to the museum next on my itinerary but my map is useless because it’s zoomed out too far. The little streets are invisible, there’s only a confusing sense of scale. I decide to take a taxi. I’ve been told that it’s very important to take one from a reputable company. The others charge too much, they cheat you. But I can’t remember which taxis are okay, so I just take the first one in the line.

I sit in the passenger seat, in the front. There’s a silence but my head keeps buzzing with plans and concerns and I feel the sweat dripping from me. The driver’s dashboard catches my eye. He has a crucifix.

“I am a Christian,” he says. He looks to my face though I wish he didn’t because the traffic is starting and stopping and darting and I want him to look at that instead. But I’m also curious. I didn’t think there were many Christians in Vietnam. He talks about Jesus in particular, in that inarticulate way some Christians talk about him, like there’s not enough words to explain and the words they do choose end up feeling inadequate. “He’s just so great,” he says.

We arrive at the museum. I take off my seatbelt and take my money out of my wallet. The Vietnamese dong is confusing to me because it comes in denominations with more zeros than I am accustomed. But the driver is interested in a different note I have, a note with only one zero, my red, polymer, 20 Australian dollar note, packed in case I need cash when I arrive back at the airport. He swiftly snatches it out of my hand and opens the door and pushes me out of the car. As he drives down the road, the door bounces on its hinges. At the red light, a couple of blocks away, I see the door open once more and slam shut.

I think the man is cruel, but I do not hate him. I am where I want to be. Every time I have been lost, there has been some relief. Some sense that maybe the anxiety was bigger than it needed to be, even if the ending wasn’t happy, even if I was late, even if my judgement was compromised, even if someone stole from me. 

I am a small child at the Melbourne Show and there are farm animals – horses and sheep mostly. I go into a tent that is dark and brimming with a banana-smelling mist produced by a smoke machine. It’s meant to simulate a house fire. I get on my knees and crawl and crawl and keep crawling until I see light. Now I am under the sky and that’s all I know. I keep turning, turning, trying to see mum or dad. I become dizzy. A woman takes my hand and says some soothing things.

Being lost is a state of precariousness, a state of anxiety. You’re at the mercy of others’ cruelty or kindness, or you force yourself to find guides where the maps don’t exist or won’t work. As a child, I don’t yet know of the story of my great grand-uncle who never found his way home, yet the visceral fear that a permanent state of being lost is possible sits in my chest. As the woman leads me through the Showgrounds, I feel forced to trust her.

The Showground has a place for children like me, a place for lost children. It looks like an ordinary red, brick house. It looks a lot like my house. I draw until mum and dad come to collect me.


About the author

Erin Stewart is an Australian freelance writer currently based in the UK and has recently completed her PhD in nonfiction writing. Twitter and Instagram: @xerinstewart

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